THE PLOT THICKENS! Or, Your Suspicions May Be True

by Helen Currie Foster

Okay—Mom Genes is such a great title, it couldn’t not be used. But Abigail Tucker’s new book of that title doesn’t focus just on moms. Tucker, a New York Times best-selling science writer, dives deep into the burgeoning science examining parental behavior—genetic? hormonal? learned?

And you writers may find it a rich source for potential plots.

Moms will recognize Tucker’s description of the weird sensation of being kidnapped, of feeling like victims of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not feeling quite yourself? In the first of a series of jaw-dropping recent research findings, Tucker reports, “Our children colonize our lungs, spleens, kidneys, thyroids, skin”—and brains. Far from being that familiar image of the one-way street, with mother’s blood, nutrients and even cells flowing into the fetus, the fetus also sends its own fetal cells into the mother. It’s “fetal microchimerism.” No wonder a burgeoning mom feels…she’s changed.

Tucker doesn’t dodge painful issues of maternal and paternal favoritism. “Some 80 percent of us allegedly … prefer one of our children to the others, and more than half of parents demonstrate so-called differential treatment toward various progeny.” The most striking predictor? “Moms appear to dote on their cutest kids.” Apparently “the components of infant attractiveness…are rigid and globally constant,” including big eyes, large forehead, small chin, and chubby cheeks. Tucker says this preference extends to nearly all baby mammals.

But dads apparently outperform moms on “child facial resemblance determination” – i.e., dads are more skilled at noticing whether a child looks like them. Indeed, one Senegal study found “kids grow up bigger and are better fed if they look and in fact smell more like their dads.” A different kind of favoritism…favoring the child which dad feels sure is his.

Jane Austen knew this. You remember that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents in Pride and Prejudice, have different favorites? Mrs. Bennet favors beautiful Jane; Mr. Bennet favors sensible Lizzy (Elizabeth). Mrs. Bennet scolds her husband: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

Humans share mothering tendencies across species. Will you recognize yourself if I mention “left-handed cradling bias”? In a “near-universal” mothering behavior, “Something like 80 percent of right-handed women and, remarkably, almost as many left-handed women hold their babies automatically on the left.” Check out many paintings of the Madonna, suggests Tucker. This “lefty” preference extends to other mammals. Why? It may allow the infant to “view the more expressive left side of the maternal face.”

Tucker points out it’s not all about genes. Life experience also affects maternal behavior. She describes studies of new monkey mothers showing that, of those roughly treated by their mothers, “more than half of the maltreated monkeys became abusive mothers. All the well-tended infants matured as competent mothers.” But when the scientists swapped some babies, so the abusive monkey moms took charge of the offspring of outstanding monkey moms, “the monkeys grew up to match the behaviors of their adoptive mothers, not their biological mothers.”

Here’s another potential genetic component. Canadian scientist Frances Champagne wondered why mother lab rats from the same genetic strain, living under identical conditions, engaged in different “licking/grooming” of their babies. When Champagne swapped the rat babies, so high-licking moms raised the babies of low-licking moms, the babies of below-average lickers followed in their adoptive mom’s footsteps. Then other scientists found they could program a baby rat’s future licking behavior by stroking it with a tiny paintbrush. “The physicality of getting licked somehow shaped the females’ instincts and behavior.” According to Champagne, “I wanted to show that the care you receive leads to epigenetic changes in infancy, and that this could replicate.” Epigenetics focuses on whether and how bits of genetic code may be “expressed.” Champagne found well-licked baby rats “were more likely to express their genes for certain estrogen receptors…” which made them more likely to express genes for oxytocin receptors and to grow more oxytocin neurons in their brains.

Fascinating research discusses how different bits of our genes “express” themselves, particularly in response to hormones. For instance, various sorts of stress can result in hormonal effects on gene expression: “Physiological changes that affect mRNA stability occur during development, nutritional stress, hypoxia, inflammation, cancer, and aging.”

The notion that our genes are static? Maybe not!

So…parental behavior factors include genes plus life experience with hormones kicking into action to affect gene expression.

Back to favoritism! Harry Potter? Reluctant adoptive parent Mrs. Dursley can’t abide her own sister’s son. The internet is full of books and studies on why parents have favorites and how favorites impact families, including impact on sibling rivalry.

Being a favorite can be dangerous, as Joseph learned. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him….” (Genesis 37.)

And I haven’t touched on what Tucker calls the “murderous tendencies of mothers,” citing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s theories on infanticide in Mother Nature.

Tucker’s final chapters look at the impact of our own stressful society on parents. “Social-support deficits and perinatal depression are intimately linked.” Tucker reports that compared to Dutch mothers, American mothers appeared comparatively quite miserable, with high levels of unhappiness and worry, because they don’t get enough support in their health care or workplace. To transform this problem “would involve taking on some of the most grinding and deadlocked political issues of our day: not only income inequality, but also health care, education, and other topics that have consistently stumped our government,” including racism (citing pregnant Black women’s higher blood pressure and elevated risks of prenatal diabetes, preterm delivery and death).

Tucker visited Erin Kinnally, a scientist at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. “Kinnally rattles off the factors that can shape primate moms…age, number of births, genetics, her own mother’s rearing history, the baby’s sex and other characteristics, access to food and shelter and sundry other environmental factors.” But the most potent force is “social chemistry.” The low-ranking macaque moms at the primate center “have weaker immune system and other distinct traits…the lowest ranking moms had four times the amount of stress hormones in their blood.” “Low-ranking [macaque] moms grasp that they have to be vigilant at all times. Fascinating studies have shown that these moms are much more likely to try to shush their infants’ cries when higher-ranked animals are around, for fear that the fussing will draw unwanted attention and attacks.”

Hormonal impact? Stress can mean a baby gets more cortisol in breast milk. In monkeys, “these high-cortisol babies grow unusually quickly, ‘prioritizing’ growth instead of social exploration…”

Tucker, like Bill Bryson in The Body, respects her readers enough to include a serious index. Hers is excellent: for her assertions in each chapter, she includes detailed links to the research studies involved.

We’re all from families; we’re all affected by our genes and our experiencesby how we were parented (and, indeed, how those who parented us were parented, and so on back up the long chain of humanity). Mom Genes confirms what writers already suspect: plots abound!

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. Ghost Daughter, Book 7 of the series, was published June 15, 2021. Helen’s active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas chapter. Find out more at www.helencurriefoster.com.

THE WRITING LIFE – For the Sandwich Generation

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

By Francine Paino

I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning.  Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.

Not   So   Fast

The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?”  I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.

The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.

Welcome to life in the sandwich generation. 

Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age.  She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.

On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.  

And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!

The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats  she knows the 24 month-old is not allowed to eat.

The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.

The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air. 

This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.

The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.

At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.

I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge. 

Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.

I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.

As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

 The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”  

###

The original version of this, Supermarket Nightmare, appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.

It’s Not About You

once upon a timeWhile attending Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD last month, I overheard a small group of authors gathered in the hotel bar discussing the issue of whether family members or friends thought a character was actually a portrayal of them. It seemed each had a story to share. One author’s sister felt a character was based on her. The author, however, stated the two–the sister and the character in question–had very little in common. The sister had picked up on one particular behavior and, from that point, assumed the entire character was based on her. It caused a bit of a family kerfuffle.

A quick online query about the topic will reveal many writers discussing how someone–a loved one, a friend, a colleague– believes a character is based on her and is unhappy about it, even when the author assures her it just isn’t so.

That’s not to say that certain authors haven’t based characters on real people–it happens all the time and often the author will reveal that information outright. After all, Anne Lamott once wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That said, this topic becomes further complicated when the book is a work of fiction and no intent to base a character on a real person was made.  So, what happens when someone in your circle believes a character–one with one or more negative traits– is based on her?

If the character is a benevolent superhero with skills that put all around her to shame, letting your aunt/sister/friend claim that character as a portrayal is no issue. Let her enjoy the idea. However, what if the character is difficult, angry or passive-aggressive? How does an author help those around her understand that it is indeed a work of fiction?

While I can’t speak about the experiences of other authors, as they are as vast and layered as the works in our genre, I can share my general thought process when writing fiction. If this post helps neutralize a heated conversation, I’m happy to help.

I tend to be drawn to the dynamics between people, to specific conversations, to behavior and to moments in time. I might take one particular spark–a discussion, an encounter–and run with it. The result may be a compilation of my own experiences with several people over a long period of time, and I find that my characters take those behaviors and use them for their own purposes. No one in any of my work represents any one person. However, one person may have traits from several people or have experiences from several people all wrapped up in that one person. That’s a pretty wide net. After all, each one of us can be angry, difficult, funny, sarcastic or rude at any given time. Each one of us may have experienced the shattering loss of a parent, the sharp tongue of a hostile work colleague, the exhaustion of a demanding career. It doesn’t mean a character with those traits or experiences is based on a real person.

Each writer brings to her work a culmination of experiences, heartbreaks, conversations and issues and those tiny threads are bound to weave themselves in the story somehow.

But not in the way others might believe.

My primary purpose is to encourage the reader to care about the characters and what happens to them. That is my goal. Creating characters based on real people isn’t part of my process.   I may appreciate how one friend handles difficult conversations while another friend’s compassion with animals makes me smile, but that doesn’t mean those same people show up in my work. The particular behavior or personality trait might but that is only because it belongs to the character. That’s where it ends.

Writers study the world around them, taking note of interactions and exchanges, tucking them away in the hopes they might be useful in a story one day.  What happens next is complete fiction, and isn’t that one of the best things about being a mystery writer?

–Laura Oles

Writing, Thinking, Pantsing, and Miracles

Pantsing, when successful, lets you create a story closely resembling the spark that ignited it. ~Janalyn Voigt, Live, Write, Breathe

The first step in starting a blog is finding the perfect name. I wanted to call mine Contrariwise, as an homage to Lewis Carroll and to my ability to locate an argument in nearly any issue I come across.

Contrariwise was already in use, however, several times over, and I couldn’t find another literary allusion that satisfied, so I named it Whiskertips. It was my own invention, an homage to the two whiskered beasts with whom I share living quarters.

The next step is thinking of something to blog about. For most people, determining a theme would be Step #1. Reversing the steps led to a series of posts I like to think of as eclectic. In other words, I wrote about whatever came to mind. I also hosted guest bloggers. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson appeared often. But after a while, nothing came to mind, and I began to fall back on the beasts. When they IMG_0832.1assumed complete control of content, I withdrew and created another blog. I took its name from Gertrude Stein: To Write Is to Write Is to Write.* In a note in the sidebar, I stated the purpose: I would write about the experience of becoming a writer. I would write about writing.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men, etc. In only weeks–days–I had another eclectic blog on my hands. Why? Because I didn’t know anything about writing.

Or, to qualify that, I didn’t know anything writers–or anyone else–would want to read.

I know the basics: grammar, usage, mechanics, various elements of fiction, methods and techniques learned from reading, attending workshops, taking classes, reading articles, books, and blogs. But I had nothing to add.  Other people had gotten there first. And who wants to read another article about where the commas go?

The worst part was that most of the authorities claimed to have the One True Way:

Write fast. Don’t revise as you go. Outline–you have to outline every scene. Use index cards. Use colored pens. Tape butcher paper to the wall. Never share your work before you’ve completed it. Find a critique group. Write 1,000 words a day, and in ninety days you’ll have a completed manuscript. Write every day. Write morning pages. Keep a writing journal. Keep a bible for your manuscript. Query early. Query later. Have a platform. Establish a brand.

All good advice, I was sure. And frustrating, because I couldn’t seem to follow the rules.

Finally, I gave up. The experts were great at explaining how they write, but they weren’t so good at telling me how to write.

I had to struggle for a while, find my own way, develop my own process, set my own rules, and deviate from rules I’d outgrown.

Now, after years of wrangling with the experts, and with myself, I finally have something to say about how I write:

I don’t start with an outline. I start with a character and a line and go from there. I can’t construct a decent plot until I understand the characters, and I can’t understand the characters until I know their backstories. The only way I can know backstories is to write them, not in a separate document, but as part of the manuscript itself. Afterward, I go back and start putting the material in order. I may have to scrap some of the best parts–the darlings–but they go in a Darlings file so I can use them later if I find a place they fit.

This method is called pantsing–as in flying by the seat of your pants. Some plotters look down on pantsers. That used to make me feel like a failure. Then I read Writing Mysteries, a collection of essays edited by Sue Grafton, in which Tony Hillerman tells about his own pantsing. He said it takes longer, but in the end, he gets there. Since reading that, I’ve stopped apologizing for pantsing. What’s good for Tony Hillerman is good enough for me.

Let me make one thing clear: I revise. The condition of my first manuscript dictates that I revise a lot. The end product looks very different from the original.

Because I’m a pantser, the NanoWriMo program of writing a 50,000-word novel in thirty days doesn’t bring out the best in me. I write more slowly, and I can’t pound out a book on someone else’s timetable. For years I registered for NaNo and then wrote perhaps ten words. That’s called losing Nano.  Now I register and write whatever I want on my own timetable. I lose nothing, NaNo loses nothing.

(There’s another reason I don’t do well with NaNoWriMo. I don’t like to talk about it. But if you want to read about it, check Wikipedia under Passive-Aggressive behavior.)

The exception to my pantsing process occurs when a story comes to me already outlined. One such blessed event happened one night just after I’d gotten into bed and turned out the light: a story appeared, beginning, middle and end. I thought it would take about 600 words, but the final version turned out to be nearly 5,000 words. It included a little pantsing.

When I began this post, I knew only two or three things about writing, but now I realize I know more. Having already run on at length, I will leave the rest for another time. After I’ve pointed out one more thing:

Some writers, myself included, know (There’s another one!)–that writing is  a form of thinking, a way to generate ideas, to learn what we already know.

But I also subscribe to Gertrude Stein’s description:

One of the pleasant things that those of us who write or paint do
is to have the daily miracle. It does come.

I depend on the daily miracle. When I write, and keep on writing, it does come.

 *

*The entire quotation is “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” I presume it was not already in use because no one wanted it.

*

Posted by Kathy Waller 0kathy-blog

Kathy blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write and at  the group blog Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68.

 

 

Where Do You Find Hope?

0kathy-blog*

*

*

Posted by Kathy Waller

*****

This isn’t a kindergarten for amateur writers. I’m sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” ~ Rejection from the editor of the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling

*****

What makes a successful writer?

Aside from a working knowledge of the language and a certain amount of talent, answers generally include persistence, organization, initiative, professionalism, practice, vision, confidence, tolerance for criticism and rejection, vision, confidence, self-discipline, resilience, motivation, creativity, empathy, patience, courage, flexibility . . . Well, it’s a long list.

But Ralph Keyes, in The Writers’ Book of Hope, says aspiring writers need two basic things: a knowledge of how the publishing industry works, and hope.

Publishing has changed considerably since Keyes’ book was published just over ten years ago, and the Internet has made it easier to find what beginning writers want to know.

Hope is a different matter. There’s plenty of pessimism and discouragement out there. Where does a writer seeking publication acquire hope?

In my experience, much of it comes from other writers.

Last month I spent a Saturday morning in a class sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas and taught by novelist Karleen Koen. I first met Karleen three years ago, when she taught at the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, and I’ll see her again at the WLT retreat this August. Last month’s class was a “sneak peek” at the August class: “The Damned Rough Draft: Reframing and Reimagining Your Novel in Its Beginning Stages.”

I’m not the only one of Karleen’s students who keeps coming back for one more course. She’s a good teacher. What she knows, she shares. She also acknowledges both the highs and the lows of her own writing life. (The title of this year’s class–“The Damned Rough Draft”–is evidence of her empathy with students.)

Karleen doesn’t promise the people sitting in her classes will become novelists, but she makes the possibility come alive. She is generous. She offers hope.

Who are other hope-givers?

Members of Austin Mystery Writers, and similar groups, who read and critique thirty to fifty pages every week. Beta readers, who go through entire manuscripts–hundreds of pages–to offer criticism. Strangers who read blog posts and Like or Reblog or Tweet or leave comments. All readers who tell the truth–both positive and negative–in a way that says, “I believe in you. Keep writing.”

It’s your turn now, writers: Who gives you hope?

James Michener Didn’t Object

By Kathy Waller

0kathy-blog

Last week, Valerie wrote about why she writes. Here’s my take on that subject:

When I was four years old, I took a pair of scissors and a roll of red, gooey adhesive tape and wrote my name on the inside of the kitchen door. It didn’t occurred to me I shouldn’t, and my parents never said a word. I’m sure they discussed it, but I wasn’t privy to that conversation.  The crooked red letters stayed on the door for years. When they were finally removed, a heavy red stain remained.

When I was eight, my father gave me a ream of legal-sized paper. I produced a newspaper, one copy per issue, focusing on the social activities of dogs, cats, and horses in the neighborhood. I reported on the wedding of Mr. Pat Boone, my fox terrier, and Miss Bootsie, my grandfather’s cranky gray-and-white cat. Miss Bootsie was really Mr. Bootsie, but even then I knew the value of poetic license. Mr. Tommy, my cousin’s orange tabby, married someone, too, but I don’t remember whom or what gender. Or what genus and species for that matter.

For years, I loved writing—the paper, the pens, the ink, the facts, the improved facts, and the outright fiction.

The feeling lasted until high school, when I began taking courses labeled English. Writing became torture. What will I write about, how many words does it have to be, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have anything to say. Through high school and two college degrees–in English–I produced the required papers but agonized over every word.

There were bright spots: writing the junior class prophecy, which made even the teachers laugh when I read it at the junior-senior banquet; composing a satire on life in the teachers’ lounge, issued serially on an irregular basis–whenever the Muse moved me.

Overall, however, my relationship to writing remained conflicted. I did my best to camouflage the discomfort, though. After all, I taught English.

Things began to change when I told a therapist about my early love affair with words. He responded, “I think you’d better start writing.” He suggested I join the Austin Writers’ League.

“I can’t,” I said. “James Michener belongs to the Austin Writers’ League. I can’t belong to anything James Michener belongs to.”

The next day, I joined. James Michener didn’t object. I started taking informal classes at nearby universities. An instructor invited me to a Saturday-morning writing practice group. The next weekend, I drove fifty miles, parked in front of the café where it met, watched people carry notebooks inside, backed my car out, and drove home. It took another week to build the courage to pick up my notebook to join them and become a regular.

The result of all this effort? Once again, I fell in love with writing. I also fell in love with a member of the writing practice group and, after a decent interval, married him.

In my romance with writing, I didn’t live happily ever after. I don’t have a long list of appealing topics. I don’t have a file of perfect first sentences. I still have to write to find out what I know and what I think. I still find myself writing furiously right up to the deadline. (Or slightly after, as I am now.) Starting any piece is difficult. But once I begin, the words flow.

I wouldn’t exchange that feeling for anything.

In fifteen years, I’ve come from, I can’t join the Austin Writers’ League to I’m working on a novel, attending Austin Mystery Writers critique group, writing short stories for publication in an anthology, blogging, writing every day.

And, contrary to the moans I make when asked how the writing is going, I love every second of it.